Thursday, 3 April 2014

Small pleasures, from good eggs to good books

Della Street and Perry Mason
It’s doubtful that there is any better way to start a working day than a leisurely breakfast with a good book by your side.

If it means getting up a tad earlier and rushing a bit more, the more relaxed minutes that follow make it worth while.

And Albertini, a small, local café just off Euston Road – so just away from the worst of the traffic fumes and noise – is the perfect spot for such indulgence.

Even the simplest foods can be got wrong. On Tuesday, with an appointment elsewhere early in the morning, breakfast was taken in an old-fashioned greasy spoon, where the eggs and baked beans did the job of providing fuel, but nothing more.

But whoever is on duty at Albertini in a morning, be it Albert or Tini, they make a mean fried egg on toast, and it’s one of life’s small pleasures to sit and eat, taking care to avoid any of the rich, golden yolk dripping onto the plate.

And then there’s the coffee: a good old-fashioned, plain white mug – none of that overpriced, absurdly-named stuff so beloved of the endless chains that have invaded these shores in the wake of Friends.

There are no baristas at Albertini, but there is always good coffee, at a decent price.

Once the eggs are consumed, I pull the mug closer and return to whatever my current reading matter is.

It’s all been fiction of late – simply because my non-fiction reading, volume one of John Richardson’s behemoth of a three-volume Life of Picasso (with a fourth volume in the offing) may be brilliant, but it is also far too big and too heavy to lug around in a day-to-day bag.

And as so often, crime fiction is what I turn to when I want something a little lighter to read, but which still doesn’t actually insult the little grey cells.

So here is a brief look at a few recent reads – although that doesn’t mean they’re new books.

Earl Stanley Gardener’s the Case of the Stuttering Bishop is really the odd one out in this batch – it’ll become clear why quite quickly – so I’ll start with that.

There’s not really much to say about the Perry Mason books except that they’re fun in a fairly predictable way, but without the writing itself being too ‘pulpy’.

When I lodged in Bloomsbury some years ago, my landlady had most of them, in lovely old editions, on narrow shelves in the flat’s littlest room. I developed a fondness for them then and it was nice to return to one now.

They remain snappy and twisty, with a strong set of central characters – even though the descriptions are largely irrelevant, because I can’t see Mason as anyone other than the late Raymond Burr and Della Street as anyone other than Barbara Hale, while William Katt (Hale’s son), who played Paul Drake in the later TV reincarnation, looks nothing like the Drake of the written page.

But no matter, it was good fun.

Arturo Peréz-Reverte is the Spanish author who has given us, among many other works, The Club Dumas, which was subsequently adapted into The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp.

The Flanders Panel starts with the discovery of a hidden clue in an old work of art, hinting at foul deeds.

In a 15th-century Flemish painting, two noblemen are pictured playing chess. Yet two years before it was painted, one of them had been murdered.

Five centuries later, in Madrid, picture restorer Julia is preparing the work for auction and uncovers a hidden inscription in Latin that points to the crime: Quis necavit equitem? Who killed the knight?

But this isn’t just a medieval mystery, because it becomes clear that, even after five centuries, the game isn’t up.

Combining art and chess, Peréz-Reverte spins a tale that possesses a genuinely creepy quality. And he writes so convincingly that you do find yourself wondering if the painting and the painter really existed.

Thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying, and with a conclusion that surprises – well, it surprised me.

Montalbano and Catarella
Having discovered that another Spanish writer, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, influenced Andrea Camilleri to the extent that the latter named his own protagonist after him, I decided to chase down some of the books that are available in translation.

Murder in the Central Committee possibly isn’t the best of the Pepe Carvalho series to begin with, since it uproots the private detective from his usual Barcelona setting and sends him to Madrid to solve an apparent closed-room killing.

In a Spain still recovering from the Franco years, the murder of the general secretary of the country’s communist party causes unrest.

Can Carvalho, drafted in as a former member of the party because he understands its workings, solve the case?

Rather over-wordy on occasion – particularly when he’s illustrating that he does actually know the politics – it’s still an interesting read with a quirky central character, and while Montalbán isn’t in the business of rubbishing communism, he’s good on the way people will argue over the finest imaginable points of what could be described as political theology.

I look forward to reading one of the Carvalho books that’s set in Barcelona.

But this moves us nicely to Camilleri and The Voice of the Violin, the fourth of his series of novels about Sicilian police inspector, Montalbano.

Here, our hero is faced with the murder of a woman that has all the hallmarks of having been the result of a burglary – or was it a rape?

Camilleri can, extraordinarily, create stories of tragedy and horror, highlighting corruption and venality and many another human failing, yet all with a sense of humour underlying the deep cynicism.

Salvo Montalbano is a wonderful protagonist – unorthodox, flawed but humane, and there’s a delightful cast of other regular characters too. In this novel in particular, the well-meaning but woefully inept policeman Catarella offers comic delight, as well as providing a way to comment on ‘modern’ approaches to policing.

And if Montalbano was named in homage to Montalbán, then another common factor is the love of food of both author’s central figures.

Mind, just as with Perry Mason, I can now no longer read about Montalbano without seeing Luca Zingaretti in my minds eye. Theyre wonderful adaptations, but it leaves you with the question of whether seeing them impinges on the altogether more individual experience of reading the stories.

It’s not as though, however, these a 'bad' performances or examples of casting. And Angelo RussoCatarella actually helps read the character's muddled language.

Finally, a new discovery from Italy.

Gianrico Carofiglio is a former anti-Mafia prosecutor-turned author from Bari, and Involuntary Witness serves as his introduction to lawyer Guido Guerrieri, who now features in three further novels.

Guerrieri’s wife is leaving him, he’s hitting an early mid-life crisis and depression that’s only exacerbated by making a living that often involves defending the less-than-innocent.

Then he finds himself defending a Senegalese immigrant who is accused of murdering a nine-year-old boy.

Not only does he have his own demons to contend with, the lawyer faces small-town racism and a judicial system that is going to make any defence difficult.

If all that sounds incredibly heavy going, it’s to Carofiglio’s enormous credit that it simply flies past, leavened as it is with a great deal of dark, self-deprecating humour.

A great onslaught on the idea of Italian machismo, Carofiglio has produced a powerful novel about redemption.

It’s absolutely superb – just don’t read the final pages anywhere in public, whether on a bus or over a plate of eggs on toast in a café anywhere.

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